Inching her way out on the ledge, Margie Hardebeck steadies herself by the railing and gazes at the sacred rock. She’s standing on the precipice across from where Francis, just two years before he died, received the wounds of the crucified Christ. It’s an awesome space in many ways—nothing but empty air between her and the steep, bare cliff where swallows, swifts and larks swipe insects on the wing.
Over their birdsongs, the deep sound of men’s voices reaches her. It’s rhythmic and chanting. Dashing up a set of steps, she peers down a long hallway and sees a procession of brown-robed men walking toward the Chapel of the Stigmata erected over the sacred rock after Francis’ death. The friars are singing a Gregorian chant, and they’re followed by a throng of faithful pilgrims.
Hardebeck is mesmerized. Mount La Verna—a two-hour bus ride north of Assisi—taps into her spiritual yearnings and confirms her decision to come to Italy. It’s a place that Francis frequently visited for meditation and prayer, a mountaintop retreat donated to him and his fledgling order where he walked to throughout his life. Today it is a sprawling sanctuary and retreat in the mountains of Tuscany where the friars make chocolate and liqueurs to sell to the faithful who arrive in droves on weekends and holidays looking for inspiration of their own.
The place inspires Hardebeck to have faith in her quest to discover her true calling. A graduate student in theology, she’s on this pilgrimage because she’s decided to retire as a family physician and do something else. But what exactly? She’s entertaining the idea of becoming a hospital chaplain. She’s even had thoughts of joining a religious order.
But she’s really not sure which way to turn. And emotionally, she’s tapped out after handling her parents’ deaths. “It was a really difficult experience for me. Even my dog died right after they did.” So while she’s trying to figure out her next career move, she’s also exploring her own spiritual beliefs. Perhaps one will lead to the other.
“It also occurred to me that if I’m going to be a chaplain, I’d better know what this faith is all about,” she says. “The master’s degree in theology may lead to a career choice change, but the self-enrichment I get in Assisi will be real good for me in a spiritual sense.”
She discovers that opportunity for self-enrichment while standing on the ledge, contemplating the man who kneeled on the rock and felt God in his veins. As Francis, in poor health from his recurring malaria and widespread travels, returned to La Verna for long retreats, so must people, particularly those in health care professions like hers, return often to the well to replenish themselves. “I feel I’m still working through what Francis’ message really is on a deeper level—emptying out in order to be filled up.”
BASILICA di SAN FRANCESCO
Katie Huey and her two undergraduate companions, Myers and Hagy, stroll the cobbled streets of Assisi in the early evening. Exhausted from their trip to La Verna, they’ve rewarded themselves with pizza from the wooden oven of a pizzeria on the square. Now, as they contemplate gelato, that delectable Italian dessert, they spy the façade of the Basilica di San Francesco lit up for the night by spotlights.
Wandering over, they’re struck by the quiet space in front of the gigantic structure—nothing like the throngs they experienced the day before when tourists streamed in and out. On this night, with the building locked up tight, the space is transformed into something resembling the aura of St. Francis—comforting, inspiring, spiritual.
It’s so beautiful, the girls lie down on the bricked plaza to get a better view of the looming facade. Francis never saw the basilica built to commemorate his life and his sainthood. And he might recoil if he saw what he would describe as opulence but others see as splendor. But the basilica was a done deal when Pope Gregory IX canonized St. Francis on July 16, 1228, just two years after his death, and laid the first stone of the new structure, erected on a hill where death sentences had been carried out.
By 1230, the lower church was completed, and Francis’ mortal remains were moved to an elevated crypt now open to visitors and prayerful pilgrims. The upper church, completed in 1236, hosted a procession of the greatest Italian painters of the day—Giotto, Pisano, Cimabue—who left a legacy of frescoes on its walls depicting the life of the famous saint. The church presents a rare example of Italian Gothic art that attracts visitors seeking spiritual and cultural gratification.
For Huey, it’s a perfect representation of the material wealth the Church accumulated contrasted with the simple life of the man it seeks to venerate. “Gillian Ahlgren showed us how he is so much like us, that he started off kind of materialistic in a wealthy family and went off and he didn’t know who he was,” Huey says. “It’s like at 20 years old, you leave your house and go to college and you start asking yourself, who am I? So it’s cool to have that connection with Francis.”
As she lies there with her friends, staring up at the Gothic façade, birds fly in and out of the spotlights, and she realizes Francis is there on the warm plaza with them. “Because he is human,” she says. “He wanted to be a friend among us, not above us.”